Steve Miller’s Long Journey to the Top

6 Min Read

As the disco era was taking off and punk was bubbling up from the underground, Steve Miller was in his mid-30s, a time when many rock guitarists from the ‘60s were struggling to stay relevant. Yet instead of fading away, Miller enjoyed his greatest success with back-to-back albums, “Fly Like an Eagle” (1976) and “Book of Dreams” (1977), that sold more than 7 million copies combined. In 1978, his “Greatest Hits 1974-78,” with 13 of its 14 tracks drawn from those two albums, went on to sell a whopping 14 million copies. 

The 1977 concert documented in “Live! Breaking Ground” catches Miller at a peak moment with a stellar band, yet he comes off as the most modest of rock stars. He’s more of a craftsman who sings, plays guitar and engages in some spirited interplay with his fellow musicians, but keeps the flash to a minimum. He doesn’t noodle on his guitar, and the only concessions to ‘70s arena-rock fashion and spectacle are white bellbottoms and a wide-collar shirt, a few lasers and a spacy synthesizer solo.

Miller instead focuses on the songs — brimming with hooks, concise and varied in tone and genre. His upbringing could be seen as a musical apprenticeship. Growing up in Milwaukee and Dallas, young Steve got a crash course in guitar-playing from his father’s friends, who included Les Paul (also Miller’s godfather) and T-Bone Walker. By age 12, Miller was playing paying gigs with his band at colleges and churches. While attending the University of Wisconsin, Miller gigged with Boz Scaggs and Ben Sidran. Next stop: Chicago and its vibrant blues scene.

His parents thought he was nuts, but he had to give the big city a shot. “To me, blues was the most mature electric music of the time,” Miller once told me. “I grew up in Texas, T-Bone Walker taught me how to play, and if you weren’t doing Bobby Blue Bland songs you couldn’t get a gig. I backed up Jimmy Reed when I was 14. So when I saw Paul Butterfield basically doing the same thing in Chicago and getting written about in Time magazine, I thought, ‘I can do it too. Maybe I could get a record contract!’” 

He and another young, white blues aficionado, Barry Goldberg, formed a band, and got regular gigs at joints such as Big John’s on Chicago’s North Side. It was a scene that drew visitors such as the Rolling Stones and the Byrds whenever they were passing through town. Miller also got a first-hand education from blues giants such as Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush when he visited the clubs on the South and West Sides of town. “I’d come to his club,” Miller said of Rush, “and he’d hand me his guitar and let me finish his set while he went to the bar to have a drink.”

‘He was big and scary — when I picked him up in San Francisco to play at the Fillmore once, he looked like a guy who might be linebacker coach for the Oakland Raiders.’

Miller learned from and sometimes competed against legends for gigs, but friendships also blossomed across racial lines because of the musicians’ shared love of the blues. “Whenever I saw Howlin’ Wolf, I just wanted to play with him,” Miller told me. “He had hands the size of baseball mitts. He was kind of a clown, really dramatic with these great big eyes when he played. Tables at the clubs would be the same height as the stage, and he would get on his knees on your table and sing right at you. He moved like a cat. He was big and scary — when I picked him up in San Francisco to play at the Fillmore once, he looked like a guy who might be linebacker coach for the Oakland Raiders. He looked like an athlete with short gray hair, but smart as a whip, the greatest guy. It was just the opposite of what you would think. Muddy (Waters) was a gentleman but more aloof. James Cotton became a dear friend. Junior (Wells) and Buddy (Guy) were funny, played way too loud and loved to drink, which could make them difficult to deal with. Now Buddy is cool. Junior — he was always tough, a competitor. Competing with them for the same gigs, it toughened you up.”

 After two years, Miller had enough of a vibrant scene tainted by corruption; police and Mafia meddling were commonplace. Miller set his sights on San Francisco, where ballroom gigs were drawing upward of 1,000 fans for rock bands — a potentially more lucrative life for a musician than the smaller Chicago blues clubs. 

“I played for three weeks as Buddy Guy’s rhythm guitar player, working from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. for 10 people, and I thought this is over,” Miller said. “In San Francisco they needed talent to fill places like the Fillmore, the Avalon and the Family Dog seven nights a week. After I got there, I played the Fillmore 120 times, two or three days each time. We brought in Muddy, James Cotton, Wolf, and they played colleges up and down the coast. I tried to do for them what they did for me.”

Miller’s band played the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and was one of many artists signed to a record deal afterward. He recorded a series of albums that put a psychedelic twist on his blues roots, and songs such as “Space Cowboy” and “Living in the U.S.A.” made him a staple on progressive FM radio for years. But pop success eluded him, and his album sales slowly began to slip in the early ‘70s.

For his seventh album with Capitol Records in 1973, Miller felt his career was losing steam and that he had nothing to lose. “The Joker,” an unusually mellow, trippy and almost comical song came out of the recording sessions. It became an unexpected No. 1 hit, his first. It also bought him a little time to put together his next move.

‘My goal was to have two albums in the can after “The Joker.”’

“I had met the Beatles in 1969 and watched and recorded with Paul McCartney,” he told me. “They had 45 songs in the can. I thought, that’s how you do it. You write a lot of great stuff and when the iron gets hot, you’re ready to strike. My goal was to have two albums in the can after ‘The Joker.’”

He spent 18 months writing and recording songs, finally winnowing them down to 24 finalists, a mix of catchy would-be hits, nods to his blues roots and more adventurous tracks that could be used for textural variety. Miller sequenced two albums that functioned like bookends. The hits flowed: six Top 40 songs including another No. 1 single (“Rock‘n Me”) in 1976-77. 

Miller’s only regret about the era? “I wish I had written enough material for three albums,” he told me. “Because once those albums took off, I never had that kind of time in my career again.” 

Yet “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Book of Dreams” ended up transcending their era, and so did Miller, the respected-journeyman-turned-Rock-‘n’-Roll-Hall-of-Famer.  

“I had six hits on those two albums, and seven other songs that I knew I wanted to play live for the next 20 years,” Miller said. “After that, I knew I was going to play all my life.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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